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CABINET MEETINGS
UNDER PRESIDENT POLK



HENRY BARRETT LEARNED



Keprinted from the Annual Report of the American Historical Association
for 1914, Volume I, pages 229-242




WASHINGTON






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XIII. I AIIINET MEETINGS UNDER PRESIDENT POLK.



By HENRY BARRETT LEARNED,

Washing to , D. C.



229



CABINET MEETINGS UNDER PRESIDENT POLK.»



By Henry Barrett Learned.



The Cabinet meeting has always been to contemporaries other than
Cabinet members something of a mystery. Rumors of proceedings
and routine, the truth or falsity of which can not readil}' be tested,
keep in circulation and accordingly afford an attractive theme for
gossip and guessing. Regular days for Cabinet councils have long
been understood to be Tuesdays and Fridays. These were taken for
granted as such under the present administration until some one
ventured the assertion early in the autumn of 1913 that President
Wilson had departed from one more precedent by abandoning Cabi-
net meetings altogether. Whatever its source, this gossip-compelling
statement fell upon listening ears. In the course of a few months,
however, with an authentic sound as though coming from the White
House, word once more got into print that the President wished it
understood that meetings of the Cabinet were being held twice a
week on the regular days, and that no member of the council ab-
sented himself from the meetings in Washington on Cabinet days
without good reasons. This second rumor with respect to the regu-
larity of Cabinet meetings from the opening of Mr. Wilson's term
I was able accidentally to verify as correct. But as a rule the on-
looker in Washington has no specially reliable sources of informa-
tion about the nature of contemporary Cabinet meetings, for every
administration is bound to have and to hold sacred — at least for a
time — its Cabinet secrets.

On the other hand, secrets, especially such as must be shared by
a group of official advisers and men active in public affairs, have
a way of coming to light in the course of years.

If there's a hole in a' your coats,

I rede ye tent it ;
A chiel's amang ye takin' notes,

And, faith, he'U prent it.

1 For a much more extended study of cabinet meetings, the reader is referred to the
author's paper entitled " Some Aspects of the Cabinet Meeting," printed in Troceedlngs of
the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. XVIII, Washington, 1915.

231



232 AMERICAN HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION.

Atjainst the keeping: of diaries there is no hiw even to members of
the President's Cabinet. In a few instances the proceedings of Cabi-
net meetings have been carefully formulated by order and placed on
file for future reference. One of these instances has long been known
to readers of the ^lemoirs of Jcjlin Quincy Adams. ^ Two others may
be seen in the manuscript sources of President Polk's and President
Andrew Johnson's respective terms. - With some effort in a variety
of directions the historian to-day is able to obtain glimpses, gleaned
from the accounts of Cabinet members and from the intimate writ-
ings of the Presidents themselves, of many hundreds of sessions of
the Cabinet from the epoch of Washington down to comparatively
recent times. There were no fewer than 65 meetings of Washing-
ton's Cabinet — rather more than 40 of these held during the mo-
mentous year 1793 alone — of which there is some record. ^ In his
Memoirs John Quincy Adams left accounts, often filled with much
detail, regarding discussions, of perhaps 180 sessions of the Cabinet
of ^lonroe (1817-1825), and of about 65 sessions during his term as
President, which immediately followed. There are not far from
450 Cabinet meetings noticed in Gideon Welles's extensive diary,
which covers the greater portion of the period of Presidents Lincoln
and Johnson. To such sorts of material must the investigator turn
who would make even an approach to some understanding of the
Cabinet meeting. In the following paper I shall confine my con-
siderations of the Cabinet meeting to the four-year term of President
Polk.

Polk was 49 years old when in March, 1845, he entered upon his
duties as President — the youngest incumbent of the Presidency up
to that time. Ten years before he had been chosen Speaker of
the House of Representatives, where for the following four years
(1835-1839) he became widely acquainted, revealed to his party
ability and remarkable industry, was pronounced in approving many
of tiie measures of the Van Buren administration, and maintained
and ripened a friendship for Andrew Jackson, which, begun many
yeai's before when he was a very young man and strengthened by
intimacy with and support of President Jackson, lasted without
a break until Jackson's death in June, 1845. Though a native of
North Carolina, he had lived for the better part of his life in Ten-
nessee, and for a single teiin (18;]9-1S41) filled the governorship of
that State. Influenced much by Jackson's counsel during the months



> Memoirs, V, 5. 1.3, 15, March, 1820.

M'olk I'apprK, MSS. Division, Library of Consrosp, Vol. 77, February 22. 1S4S. Of.
I'olk's I)lary, IH, 34«V-347 ; A. Johnson Papers, MSS. Division, L. of C, A'ol. llo. under
flates of .Tune 18-10. 1867.

•Based upon an exaralnntlon of manuscript materials on the subject now In possession
of the Miiri\iHcrlptH IMvWion of the Library of Congress and upon printed letters of the
leading Btatcsmen of the time.



CABINET MEETINGS UNDER PRESIDENT POLK. 233

of his canvass and even after his election, Polk went back to Jeffer-
son for his ideal of a statesman. And he set himself to the task
of carrying out the principles of the Republican party as it was
usually referred to in the organ of the administration, the Wash-
ington Daily Union. ^ ,

Few men [said a writer in the Union of IMay 13, 1845J are capaltle of the
labors which he [Pollv] encounters; and few in his phice would dev(ite tiieni-
selves with the same assiduity to the public service. He works from 10 to 12
hours in every 24. He holds two Cabinets a weelv. He sees visitors two
hours every day when the Cabinet is not employed. ... ITo is also in
frequent communion with his secretaries.

Gossip though this was, it came from a source almost certain to
be inspired by real information, for Thomas Ritchie, editor of the
newdy established paper, had been induced to come from Richmond
to Washington for the direct purpose of giving the Administration
an official organ — a mouthpiece through which even the President
might occasionally address his party and the people. And in fact
more than once Polk outlined an article for the Union. -

The publication of Polk's Diarj?^ in 1910, appearing about 60 years
after its author's untimely death, in June, 1849, has already quick-
ened interest in Polk and will probably tend to raise him as a man
in the estimation of historians. For glimpses of nearly 400 sessions
of the Cabinet, set down b}^ the actual director of such sessions, it
remains a unique record. Revealing no such range of view or literary
facility as Adams's Memoirs, with little of the skill of characteriza-
tion or the bitterness toward foes of Welles's Diary, it is, neverthe-
less, rather more directly informing than either of the foregoing
works in the matter of routine practices and specific discussions of
cabinet problems. There is an entry, however brief, for every day
that Polk occupied the Executive Mansion from Tuesday. August 26,
1845, the day that the diary was begun, until Sunday, ]\Iarch 4, 1849,
when Gen. Taylor succeeded him in office. Cabinet sessions were
invariably noted, sometimes with careful and extended detail. It
shows Polk and his counsellors at work.

Between early December, 1844, and the following March 4 mem-
bers of the Cabinet were selected. There were six men in the first
assembled group: James Buchanan, of Pennsylvania, Secretary of
State — a shrewd and experienced politician, aged 54, taken from
the leadership of his party in the Senate, ambitious of future dis-
tinctions which in the course of years he obtained, headstrong and
vacillating; Robert J. W^alker, of Mississippi, Secretary of the

• The first issue came out in Washington on Thursday night, May 1, 1845.

= Diary, I, 351-352. April 24, 1846. " It is the second or third time since I have been
President that I have sketched an article for the paper, I do so in this instance to allay,
if possible, the excitement which I learned the article In yesterday's Union had pro-
duced • • *."



234 AMERICAN HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION.

Treasury — youngest member, aged 44, like Buchanan a nadve of
Pennsylvania and taken from the Senate, allied by marriage to
Vice President Dallas, a man of great promise, destined tx) win solid
claims to statesmanship as chief author of the tariff act of 1846 and
largely responsible for the formulation of the act which provided in
184!* for the organization of the Department of the Interior;^ Wil-
liam L. Marcy, of New York, Secretary of War — oldest member of
the group, aged 58, a veteran of the War of 1812, former Senator, and
governor of his State, later chosen Secretary of State by Franklin
Pierce, whom he served ably for four years; John Y. Mason of Vir-
ginia, Attorney General — aged 46, the single member of Tyler's
Cabinet retained by Polk, later (1846) transferred to the secretary-
ship of the Xavy ; Cave Johnson, of Tennessee, Postmaster General —
an experienced member of the House of Representatives, from which
Polk summoned him at the age of 52, watchful of the President's
minor political interests and a bosom friend; and George Bancroft,
of Massachusetts, Secretary of the Navy — former candidate for the
governorship of his Commonwealth, aged 45, an historian already
favorably known, admirer of Polk, though a so-called Van Buren
man, and satisfactorj' as a representative of the New England sec-
tion. Two others changed slightly the color of this first group:
Nathan Clifford, of Maine, at the age of 43, was made Attorney
General, succeeding Mason, who was transferred to the Navy head-
ship. He added marked ability, for he was one of the very able
lawvers of his time, helping in 1 18 to negotiate the final treaty
with Mexico, attaining in 1858 to the position of Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court, and finally serving his countr}^ in 1877 as
president of the Electoral Commission. He was in turn succeeded
in tlie attorney generalship by Isaac Toucey, of Connecticut, aged 52,
recently unsuccessful candidate for the governorship of his native
State. Toucey reappeared in national politics in 1852 as Senator,
and closed his public career as Buchanan's Secretary of the Navy
f lom 1857. The average age of this Cabinet was 49 years.

Tt proved to be an able group of advisers and was reasonably har-
monious. But its ability in general would certainly have been in-
creased (just as its harmony would probably have decreased), had
it contained such leaders as Silas Wright of New York, Calhoun of
South Carolina, Lewis Cass of Michigan, or Thomas H. Benton of
Missouri. To Wright was tendered the secretaryship of the Treas-
ury as early as December 7,^ which was refused. To the others no
offers of Cabinet positions were probably made. The men whom
l*olk selected were picked with reference to his declared interests in
tariff reduction, in a policy of expansion which favored the acquisi-

' H. B. Lrarned. The ProHldcnt'B Cabinet (1912), 275-287.
Polk Papers, MSB. Vol. 68.



CABINET MEETINGS UNDER PRESIDENT POLK. 235

tion of Oregon and the annexation of Texas, and in the political and
economic needs of the South and Southwest. Slavery he took no de-
cided stand upon — that issue he desired as far as possible to avoid.
Although it came at times into Cabinet discussions, Polk's Diary is
notably casual upon the topic. Pledged himself from his nomination
to a single term in office, the President forewarned his prospective
counselors on no account to take advantage of their respective posi-
tions as advisers in order to promote ambition which had for its end
either the presidency or the vice-presidency. " Should any member
of my Cabinet," he wrote, " become a candidate for the presidency
or vice presidency of the United States, it will be expected upon the
happening of such an event, that he will retire from the Cabinet." ^
x\.bsences from the seat of government he pledged them to make
always as brief as possible, for he disproved of the practice of leav-
ing the management of the departments to chief clerks or other less
responsible persons.

Has there been any President since 1789 who stuck so persistently
to his tasks as did President Polk? During the four-year period he
was not outside Washington for more than about six weeks. How
many Presidents have confined themselves to vacations averaging 10
days a year? Polk spent a day at Mount Vernon in the spring of
1845 ; - late in August, 1846, for about a week he was at Old Point
Comfort; in May-June, 1847, he made a visit of nine days to the
University of North Carolina of which he and his Cabinet associate,
John Y. Mason, were graduates in 1819 ; ^ he went for a fortnight's
tour to New England, primarily to attend a Masonic celebration, in
June-July, 1847; and finally in the late summer (August) of 1848,
wearied and restless, he spent 10 days at Bedford Springs. Pa.
There is no evidence of other absences on his part from the seat of
government. Moreover, there was no cessation of Cabinet meetings
while he was there, from the August day on which the Diary opens.
The regularity of Cabinet sessions, regular and " special," becomes
positively irksome in the record. These are Polk's words:

No President who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have
any leisure. If he intrusts the details and smaller matters to subordinates
constant errors will occur. I prefer to supervise the whole operations of the
Government myself rather than intrust the public business to subordinates, and
this makes my duties very great.*

This was not idle sentiment on Polk's part, for the President's
theory and practice were in accord, as the record of the Administra-

1 See the circular letter of Polk to prospective Cabinet associates, dated February 17,
1845, and printed in full in The Works of James Buchanan (ed. John Bassett Moore),
VI, 110-111.

2 Diary, II, 87. See also Washington Daily Union, Aug. 19, 1846, II, 370.

* Washington Daily Union, June 2, 1847, et seq.

* Diary, IV, 261, Dec. 29, 1848.



236



AMERICAN HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION.



tion clearly proves. He was ill at times during his last year in office,
and one may reasonably conclude that he was suffering from the
effects of his incessant and tireless labors.

Whether Polk was the first President to introduce regularity into
Cabinet sessions I do not feel certain, for as yet I have not examined
with sufficient care the practices of the Cabinet during Van Buren's
and Tyler's resjiective terms. Previous to 1837 it may be positively
stated that there was no regularity in this respect. Polk's Cabinet
met as a rule every week throughout the year if the President was
not himself away from "Washington. It made no difference to him
whether Congress was or was not in session. On Tuesdays and Sat-
urdays at 11 o'clock in the forenoon it assembled unsummoned and
in accordance with a settled custom. In one year alone— 1840, during
which war with Mexico was begun — the council met about 114 times.
In 1848, the year which witnessed the treaty settlement of Guada-
lou^De-Hidalgo, there w^ere approximately 120 meetings. As reckoned
through the evidence of the Diary there were about 173 meetings on
Tuesdays and 168 meetings on Saturdays. All others, perhaps 50,
were known as " special " meetings, and were summoned on any one
of the other days of the week. The following table, confined to the
Diary record alone, will indicate at a glance the results of the whole
enumeration :





1845


1846


1S47


1848


1849


Total






4
2

50
4
2
1

51


i

47
2
2
2

44


5


49
4
3
5

48


' ' " 9
1
1

' 9'


9






10


Tues'iciVs


18
4


173




15


TUursd lys


8


Fridavs.


1

16


9




1G8






Total


39


114


99


120


20


392







It was against Polk's strict Sabbatarian views to summon the
Cabinet to Sunday sessions, but occasionally, in 1846 and in 1848,
the two most momentous j'^ears of his administration, he found it
necessary to do so against his will. He was never resigned to miss-
ing attendance at church at 11 o'clock Sunday mornings. Regular
sessions were seldom over before 2 p. m. ISIany meetings will be
found, however, sitting as late as 3 and even 4 o'clock. Four and
five hour meetings were regarded as long. Polk dined at 4 p. m.
Only once is there record of a six-hour meeting — that convened at
9.30 a. m. on Friday, July 9, 1847.

Tho subject which T submitted for consideration [wrote the President]
was the conduct of Gen. Scott and Mr. Tri.st. and the nnjrry personal contro-
versy into wliicii these two functionaries had allowed themselves to be en-
guf^ed. Dispatches from Gen. Scott to the Secretary of War, and from Mr^



CABINET MEETINGS UNDER PRESIDENT POLK. 237

Trist to the Secretary of State, received durinf? my late tour to the lOastern
States, were read. They exhibited a wretched state of things. So far from the
harmony prevailing between these two ofTicers, they are engaged in a violent
personal correspondence.

Opinions differed as to what should be done. The President was
ready with the suggestion that both men be recalled. In the dis-
cussion Marcy and Buchanan assumed the lead, and both of these
advisers, followed by the other members of the Cabinet, opposed the
suggestion. The Cabinet had its way, the President yielding, but
not without adding his thought as to the possible desirability of
sending some such capable assistant to Trist as Senator Pierre Soule,
of Louisiana.^ The episode of the quarrel is well enough known to
history,- though the way it touched the Cabinet is a contribution of
this intimate record.

In view of the tasks of the administration, Polk's Cabinet sessions
were on the whole brief as compared, for example, with the slow-
gaited and occasionally very prolonged sessions of Monroe's Cabi-
net.^ Seldom were meetings omitted on regular days, even with only
two Cabinet advisers in Washington. The laying of the corner
stone of the Smithsonian Institution* and the public funeral of
John Quincy Adams ^ were among occasions when it seemed only
fitting to omit meetings.

Unlike the meetings of John Quincy Adams's Cabinet, which were
devoted to a few rather specific problems and were neither frequent
nor at all regular, those of Polk were usually alive with a consider-
able variety of business and discussion. The epoch was alert. Its
problems, especially those which were generated by the Oregon
Question and the War with Mexico, were grave and complicated, bur-
dened with consequences of a doubtful and very far-reaching kind.
Large subjects came inevitably before the advisers — the tariff, Texas,
Oregon, California, Army troubles, slavery, the treaty with Mexico —
some of them demanding the enunciation of more or less definite at-
titudes on the part of the Executive. On the other hand, there were
also numerous matters of minor, if not occasionallj'^ of petty, signifi-
cance. The Cabinet heard much political gossip and discussed it
pretty freely; it watched intently the proceedings of Congress and
guided itself to some extent by what it observed. The President kept
in close touch with party leaders in both the House and the Senate.
Even the aged Calhoun was admitted early in 1846 to a session of

* Diary, III, 75-79. Cf. Jesse S. Reeves, American Diplomacy under Tyler and Polk
(1907), 315-316.

« Schouler, History of the L'nited States (rev. ed.), V, 51-53.
3 See J. Q. Adams's Memoirs, IV, 37, 168 ; VI, 389 ff.

* Diary, III, 1-2. Saturday, May 1, 1847. Secretary Wallier was unable to attend the
ceremony. See Washington Daily Union. May 10, 1847.

6 Ibid., Ill, 362-363. Saturday, Feb. 26, 1848.



238 AMERICAN HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION.

the Cabinet.* Senator Benton throughout the first two j^ears of the
administration was many times in conference with Polk, as was
Senator Cass in the hitter years. Vice-President DaHas was often
consulted informally, but there is no evidence that he ever attended
a session of the council. Thomas Ritchie, of the Union, was care-
fully consulted on various occasions, and allowed presidential secrets
to slip into his partisan publication, at times much to Polk's dis-
gust. We get glimpses of the figure of Andrew Johnson, of Tennes-
see, flitting in and out of the Executive Mansion even thus early —
distrusted and disliked by Polk. Johnson and his Tennessee col -
leagues " seem to assume to themselves the right to judge of the ap-
pointments in Tennessee," remarked the Piesidunt. '* and to denounce
them among Members of Congress and in boaiding houses as though
they were responsible for them. I think it fortunate," he concluded,,
"that they have now learned that their course has not been unob-
served by me." ^ Polk and his counselors, especially Buchanan, who
became ambitious for the Presidency when he discovered that he
could not easily obtain an appointment to the Supreme Court,
scanned carefully many newspaper criticisms, and even attempted to
dictate to some variety of newspapers. The subject of office-seeking
politicians, haunting Polk day and night throughout his term, could
not help coming at times into conciliar discussions.

The four annual messages, prepared by Polk promptly and with
remarkable care, were not only submitted to the Cabinet but to men
of influence and discretion outside that body — to Vice-President
Dallas, Editor Ritchie, Senators Benton and Cass, and to many
others. The fourth message,'' which among presidential papers must
always be reckoned remarkable — the President's valedictory to his
Democratic followers as well as to the Nation — was given slow and
long attention. The President yielded his conxictions neither easily
nor as a rule for petty reasons. Politics influenced him. But he
seldom forgot principles even though he was obliged to sacrifice the
friendship and influence of men as powerful as Senator Benton and
the assistance to some extent of his Secretary of State, Buchanan.
A less prudent man would probably have failed to hold through the
administration three such ambitious and able advisers as Buchanan,
Marcy. and Walker, for at one time or another they were all ready
to abandon their places.

Votes in Cabinet sessions were infrequent.* Like most Presidents
before and since his time, Polk asked now and again for written
opinions on technical matters of law from his attorneys-general."

» niary, I, 1«1. Jan. 10.

»Ib!(l., II, 41. July 21. 1R4(!.

» Uichnrd.son, Mowsiiros and Papers, IV, G29-670.

« Diary, III, 281.

•11*1(1., II, 79; IV, 202.



CABINET MEETINGS UNDER PRESIDENT POLK. 239

But he seldom, if ever, called for written opinions from the rest of
his advisers. On this point his words are nearly conclusive : " I
have never called for any written opinions from my Cabinet, pre-
ferring to take their opinions, after a discussion, in Cabinet, and in
presence of each other. In this way harmony of opinion is more
likely to exist." ^

Thus a practice begun by Washington and characteristic of sev-
eral of Washington's more immediate successoi-s was voluntarily
abandoned by Polk.

Polk's party was not a little aroused over the fact that two such
pronounced Whigs as Generals Scott and Taylor were likely to gain
most of the honors in the war. Hence an effort was made to have
created a new office of lieutenant-general — an acting general-in-
chief in the field. Polk commended the project. It was introduced
into Congress but there failed. And Benton, who was to have had
the new command, placed the blame for its failure upon Secretaries
Buchanan, Walker, and Marcy.^ The proof of this charge it would
probably be difficult, if not impossible, to establish. Wliile this whole


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